July 28, 2003: How could Ricin be used as a Weapon of Mass Destruction?

Ricin gained notoriety in 1978 (in London) when the Bulgarian journalist and political exile, Georgi Markov was stabbed by an umbrella which left a hollow metallic sphere the size of a head of a pin in his posterior thigh.  He died from severe gastroenteritis and multiorgan failure as a result of the ricin injection.  Ricin was recently found in the possession of known terrorists.

Ricin is readily available.  Castor beans are used in the production of castor oil, a brake, and hydraulic fluid constituent.    

Dermal exposure does not result in significant absorption.  GI exposure is unlikely as mastication would be required.  Aerosol exposure presents the greatest risk.  Aerosol exposure causes weakness, fever, cough, and pulmonary edema within 18-24 hours and severe respiratory death within 36-72 hours.  In rodents, aerosol exposure causes necrotizing airway lesions, tracheitis, bronchitis, and interstitial pneumonia. 

Treatment is supportive.  No antidote is available.

As always, if there are any questions, call the MTPC.

I am interested in any questions that you would like answered in “Question of the Week.”  Please e-mail me with any suggestions at donna.seger@Vanderbilt.edu

Donna Seger, M.D.
Medical Director, Middle Tennessee Poison Center